3 generations tend Washington's oldest grape vines

By Andy Perdue, Herad staff writerMarch 29, 2010 

As Todd Newhouse walks up and down the rows of his family's vineyard, he can feel the history around him. Here, high above the Yakima Valley, the hills seem to hold the spirit of a patriarch of Washington's wine industry.

"I would like William Bridgman to see what the industry has become," said Newhouse, 36, the third generation of his family to tend Washington's most historic vines.

"A lot of people refer to Walt Clore as the father of Washington wine," Newhouse said. "You could take that a step further, and say W.B. Bridgman was the grandfather of Washington wine. In fact, it was Bridgman who convinced Walt Clore to plant wine grapes at the WSU extension center, and all of the early cuttings that Walt Clore planted came from Bridgman's Snipes Mountain vineyard."

The Newhouses own Upland Vineyards on Snipes Mountain, a 1,310-foot upthrust in the middle of the Yakima Valley near Sunnyside. It became the state's 10th American Viticultural Area in early 2009, the state's second-smallest appellation after Red Mountain at 4,145 acres. Of its roughly 900 acres of vineyards, 700 are part of Upland.

The mountain is named for Ben Snipes, who built a house and operated a cattle ranch there in the 1850s. In 1917, Bridgman planted grapes. Some of those original vines, including Thompson seedless and muscat of Alexandria, still produce grapes. Adjacent to Snipes Mountain is Harrison Hill, where Bridgman planted table grapes in 1914 and later wine grapes.

In 1934, soon after Prohibition was repealed, Bridgman launched Upland Winery on Snipes Mountain. He sold Harrison Hill to Associated Vintners (which later became Columbia Winery) in the early 1960s. The old winery closed in 1972, and its 80 acres of vineyards were sold to Al Newhouse the next year.

The Newhouses were no strangers to farming. The family began growing alfalfa in the Yakima Valley in 1913 and started the valley's first dairy in the 1920s. Al Newhouse planted his first wine grapes -- chardonnay -- in 1968. After acquiring Upland Vineyards and renaming it Newhouse Farms, Newhouse planted riesling and cabernet sauvignon.

In the early 1970s, Steve and John Newhouse, Al's sons, became involved full time in the operation. Al Newhouse and his six brothers farmed together until 1982. The family was focused on hops, and Al wanted to move to wine grapes and tree fruit, so they amicably split the operation, and the name changed to Upland Farms.

In the mid-1990s, Todd Newhouse joined the operation, followed later by his two younger brothers. A cousin, who also owns a vineyard on Snipes Mountain, is Dan Newhouse, the state director of agriculture and former state legislator.

Today, Todd Newhouse oversees an operation that includes wine grapes, juice grapes, cherries, apricots, nectarines, peaches, prunes, pears and apples.

Most of the Snipes Mountain grapes go to Chateau Ste. Michelle in Woodinville and Hogue Cellars in nearby Prosser, though more than 20 other wineries also buy some, including Vin du Lac of Chelan, Thurston Wolfe in Prosser and Brian Carter Cellars in Woodinville.

The Newhouses also own nearby Harrison Hill. Its grapes go to DeLille Cellars in Woodinville, which produces a red blend called Harrison Hill.

In 2006, the Newhouse family launched Upland Estates, reviving the name of Bridgman's operation. The first wine, released in 2007, was a 2006 gewrztraminer. The 2007 malbec won best in show last fall at the Tri-Cities Wine Festival.

Today, the winery makes about 650 cases, which will grow to about 1,500 cases in the next two years. Upland has a tasting room at the foot of Snipes Mountain, just outside the appellation boundary.

Larry Lehmbecker, owner and winemaker of Vin du Lac of Chelan, has used Snipes Mountain grapes since 2002, his first vintage.

"Snipes Mountain is a special place," Lehmbecker said. "Todd and I had a mutual friend, so I went down there for fruit. Todd had this block that fit well with what I wanted to do."

Bob Bertheau, head winemaker for Ste. Michelle, primarily uses white grapes from Snipes Mountain. He loves the balanced nature of its grapes.

"The soil is more gravely and rocky as you climb the hill," Bertheau said. "That adds character to the wines."

Bob Betz, owner/winemaker of Betz Family Winery in Woodinville, began using Snipes grapes last fall.

"In my 35 years in the Columbia Valley, I'd never been on Snipes Mountain," Betz said. "I was blown away, as I had never seen soil like this in the Columbia Valley in all my years."

Betz described the huge amount of cobble as "sweet potato rocks" because of their shape and size. They absorb and hold heat, which helps grapes continue to ripen even after the sun sets.

"For me, it's a great place for grenache. What I see right now is vibrant color, great depth of fruit and great character."

Which brings us back to W.B. Bridgman, the man who had a vision for Washington wine nearly a century ago.

"Bridgman would be thrilled to see some of the grapes he planted still here," Newhouse said. Bridgman's Thompson seedless vines planted in 1917, continue to produce huge clusters of grapes from their thick, gnarly trunks. Next to them is Muscat of Alexandria planted the same year, which go into Upland Estate ice wine.

"When you go by these old vines, you're always reminded of (the history)," Newhouse said. "I think Bridgman would be pleased. This is an extension of the dream he had. Little did he know it would be revived again."

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